Friday, February 22, 2013

On how a lack of fluency in German is hurting Europe's single market


The Economist recently observed that, for all that the European Union is supposed to function as (among other things) a single market for labour, Europeans from countries hit hard by the Eurozone crisis aren't moving in the numbers that one would expect. A lack of fluency in the German language is identified--fairly, I think--as a major concern.
Spain has a youth unemployment rate of 56%. In Greece it is 58%. By contrast, Germany has negligible youth unemployment (8%) and a shortage of qualified workers. Theoretically, people should be willing to move from the “crisis countries” to the boom towns, just as the Okies once flocked to California.

To some extent this migration is indeed happening. New arrivals in Germany in the first half of 2012 grew by 15% over the same period in 2011, and by 35% net of departures. And the numbers of newcomers from the euro crisis countries increased the most—Greek arrivals were up by 78%, Spanish by 53%, for example. But the absolute numbers (6,900 Greeks and 3,900 Spaniards during those six months) are still modest.

It is “astonishing how astonishing it still is that they are coming”, says Holger Kolb, at the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration. Some things are beginning to work as intended, such as the elimination of bureaucratic hassles for moving within the EU. Yet it seems that the EU can never become a truly integrated market. That is mainly because of language. Mr Gómez finds Germans challenging—“always nagging you about recycling or noise or whatever”—but the language is “the hardest part”.

Thus language has replaced work visas as the main barrier to mobility. When the euro crisis began, the branches in southern Europe of the Goethe Institute, the German equivalent of the British Council, were overwhelmed by demand for German courses, says Heike Uhlig, the institute’s director of language programmes. That demand was also different, she adds: less about yearning to read Goethe’s “Faust” than about finding work. So the institute retooled, offering courses geared to the technical German used by engineers, nurses or doctors.


The problem with this is that the German language isn't nearly as widely spoken a second language as English, or (relative to the number of first-language speakers) French. I pulled these maps from Wikipedia's article on languages in the European Union. Due credit to the creators can be found at the Wikipedia site, and on my Flickr pages hosting the images.

First comes German.

Knowledge of German in Europe (2005)

German as a foreign language in Europe (2005)

Next, English.

Knowledge of English in Europe (2005)

English as a foreign language in Europe (2005)

This data is taken from a 2005 survey. Looking at a 2012 followup, it seems like fluency in German may have fallen off further.

It's worth noting two things.

1. German is much less wide-spread than English. The two maps might actually be slightly misleading, in that they have different scales. I'd assign responsibility for this to the catastrophic outcome of the Second World War, which led to the liquidation via migration of the German communities in the east and the collapse of German as a language of wider communication. Regardless, German has a long way to go to catch up.

2. By and large, fluency in German is least common in the Eurozone countries hardest hit by the crisis: Spain, Italy, Portugal stand out for their lack of speakers. Again, German has a long way to go to watch up.

6 comments:

Colin said...

It's interesting that the map of second-language German speakers still shows traces of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and more generally of Mitteleuropa, despite how much the world wars did to destroy both the physical and cultural presence of German speakers outside the modern-day Sprachraum.

Randy said...

That is true, although even in Slovenia rates of fluency in German seem to be below rates of fluency in English. Central Europe certainly isn't a German preserve.

jemand said...

So I did a little rough calculation, since I was curious what percentage of Spanish or Greek youth who spoke German had migrated. I estimated the 20-29 year old population off of population pyramids, multiplied by the highest percentage of German speakers from the map (5% for Spain, 9% for Greece).

If all the migrants were in that age range, and I assumed right for estimating the language skills as being to the high range for that age, there would be about 1% of Spanish youth and 6% of Greek youth that spoke German moving in a year.

I'm not really sure how those numbers compare to other migrations... but they seem significantly more impressive than the raw numbers would initially look.

Randy said...

That's actually really interesting. Might you want to make a guest post here?

jemand said...

Sure! That sounds fun. I'd like to do a little more analysis than just what I did for the comment... Maybe I could have it ready late this week or early next? Email me and we can work out details of when and how I should get it to you.

Randy said...

I don't have your E-mail address. rfmcdonald@sympatico.ca, here.